When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1–8)
This ending to Mark’s gospel leaves us with a problem: we finish with the women running away in fear. How much neater it would be if we saw them reach the disciples. How much more satisfying to see the happy outcome of the women’s’ discovery, rather than their fearful bewilderment. Some speculate that perhaps there was a longer ending, which got lost. In fact later manuscripts of Mark do indeed have a longer ending, which you can see in your Bibles. But maybe this is what Mark had in mind all along. Maybe he wanted to leave us with the disturbing question: where is Jesus now?
At one level this is the question which faces the reader, caught up in the emotions of the crucifixion and resurrection. The women, reasonably enough, wish to anoint Jesus’s body. This is Jewish custom after all, and their observance of the sabbath had stopped them from doing it early. Anointing is the final thing they can do for their beloved teacher and so, understandably, they go to the tomb, worrying about the large heavy stone which has sealed up the entrance. As they draw closer they see the stone moved, and they are told Jesus has risen. Of course they flee in fear - wouldn’t you? All the certainties of these women’s lives have been overturned. The one who was dead has now risen. The despair of Good Friday is being eclipsed by the joy of Easter. It’s all very well for the young man to say don’t be alarmed! All very well tell them to go and meet the risen Christ in Galilee. Fear, surely, is the natural response to all this.
Well, that was then and this is now. For all that, though, the issue which the women faced is symptomatic of deeper problem, something we all have. The problem is this: where is Jesus? Where do you find him? How do you relate to him? Or, put it another way, where is God.
This is a problem which has been around for a while. You just have to read the Psalms to find people crying out “why have you turned your face from me”. The Psalmists groan and thirst for God - where is he? The history of the Old Testament is littered with attempts to tie down God in a certain place: poles were set up as places of worship and golden calves fashioned. There was a desire to get God tied down, and that even extended to the Temple itself. The thought began to develop that you could simply buy God off with some sacrifices and get on with your life. You end up believing that God is safely in the Temple, and all is well.
So the women went to the tomb. That’s where Jesus will be, safe behind a boulder, but, to quote the young man, “He has risen; he is not here”. Oh how we often imagine God trapped within time and space. He’s in this church building, or he’s at that special place. He’s where we left him. Buried.
But, not so! Listen to Stephen, the first Christian martyr:
“Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?’” (Acts 7:48-50).
God is not able to be contained, he’s not in those places as if he can be safely locked up as we leave. He’s not where you left him!
So where is he? Where is God? Listen again to that man at the tomb: “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you”. Here is our answer: here is where we find God. He is ahead. He is waiting for us. He is the living God, and the God of the living!
Oh how we return to the tombs. How we imagine to find God in a building, book or person. How we keep going back to our old patterns, and traditions become bare rituals How we simply repeat. Simply do the same old things. But whisper it: “God is not there”. God is not in the tombs. Whisper it: “God has gone ahead”. Go! Meet him! Meet with God! He is out there, ahead of you. Don’t sit at home wondering where God is. Go and find him. Don’t look at what has been in the past, go towards your future for Christ is going ahead.
I wonder how often we forget the real, earth changing significance of Easter. Christ is risen! HE IS NOT DEAD! He has gone ahead of us, so that we need never face the future with fear. He calls us to follow him, and to leave all behind as we do so. He calls us to go and discover the abundant life which is a fruit of following Christ.
Here is the great challenge of Easter, the great fact which rings down the ages. Christ is alive, and calls us to relate to him as the living God. Through his death he gave us the way to have our sins forgiven, and though his resurrection he calls us to a living relationship. Will you follow that same path? Place your trust in him, have him earn forgiveness of your sins and then follow him as your living saviour? He has gone ahead - so go and join him!